Let Them Eat Duck Fat

From Maison Robert to Seasons to her own legendary Biba, Lydia Shire revolutionized the Boston restaurant scene by pushing the limits of what was acceptable. Now, mired in an ugly legal fight—and dogged by whispers that her best days are behind her— the flamboyant chef is determined to prove she still knows how to give diners what they want.

Lydia Shire needed a favor. A hunter friend had dropped off a deer for her at her restaurant, Seasons, and now it was just sitting there. The head was still on. The pelt was still on. The thing must have weighed 150 pounds. So Shire called John Dewar, a butcher who had always been helpful in tracking down her odd requests—pigs’ jowls, lambs’ brains, fresh Long Island ducks—and asked for help.

“John, can I bring this over?”
“No, you can’t bring that thing over to my government-inspected plant,” he replied.
“Well, can you come here, then? I’ll make you lunch.”

Dewar and his partner arrived at about 11 that morning and went to work. They skinned the deer and cut it up just as Shire requested. As they were finishing, they heard a faint clink of silver and glassware. Into the prep room came Uriel Pineda (Shire’s then employee, now husband), wheeling a table covered with snowy-white linens, crystal wine goblets, a dainty bouquet of flowers, and a bottle of very expensive California red. “We looked like we had been in a war, covered in blood and guts, and we sat down and ate this incredible six-course meal,” Dewar recalls. “She thought it was perfectly normal.”

Shire also thought it was normal to fill the first menu of Biba, which she opened to great fanfare in 1989, with descriptions like “sort of burnt Maui onions” and “legumina” (translation: vegetables) plus an entire offal section that included brains, sweetbreads, and veal heart. She thought it was normal to crack open a kilogram of caviar—about $1,400 at today’s prices—when her good friends Julia Child and Jasper White came for dinner at her house. And it was normal to be the first female chef at the Bostonian, the first female executive chef to open a hotel in the Four Seasons chain, and the first woman to own Locke-Ober, a Boston institution that had refused to even serve women in the main dining room for more than a century.

In her 35 years in the industry, Shire has done more than anyone to lay the foundation for Boston’s thriving restaurant scene. And she’s done it by pushing the limits of what is acceptable. While other 1980s chefs were content to serve up a well-done T-bone and baked potato, Shire offered saddle of rabbit with sour cherries. She wasn’t exactly sure people would go for such a dish, but it sounded good to her, and that was enough. “Lydia taught us to think for ourselves,” says Bill Poirier, now chef at Sonsie. “We all have tried to carry the torch that she lit.”

“We” would be Shire’s many famous acolytes, who include Pava’s Susan Regis, Rialto’s Jody Adams, Gordon Hamersley of Hamersley’s Bistro, and Mario Capone, now her chef de cuisine at Locke-Ober. But while her pupils all went on to develop styles that have withstood changing tastes, time has been less kind to Shire. In 2001, she had to close Pignoli, her popular Italian restaurant. A year later, facing dwindling revenues, the legendary Biba shut its doors. Today, Shire co-owns Locke-Ober, a storied but far from trendsetting dining room. (When Gourmet magazine recently listed Locke-Ober as one of the top 50 restaurants in the country, several prominent local gourmets snidely wondered aloud if the judges had actually eaten there.)

In many ways, the very qualities that led to Shire’s ascendancy have contributed to her current troubles. Her devil-may-care approach may have had a magical effect on her recipes, but it hasn’t served her so well when it came to balancing the books. This, at least, is the claim being made by real estate developer Kenneth Himmel, the owner of Grill 23, with whom Shire went into business after Biba closed. Shire had served as executive chef at the pair’s new venture, Excelsior, until May 2005, when Himmel fired her, saying she failed to adequately control costs. Last February, Shire responded with an age discrimination suit, alleging she had been pushed aside in favor of “young hot shot” Eric Brennan.

“Ken Himmel presented Ms. Shire with an ideal opportunity to showcase her talents and, quite frankly, she blew it,” says Himmel’s lawyer, Rosanna Sattler.

“That’s absolutely ridiculous,” retorts Shire. “I am 100 percent proud of what I did at Excelsior.” She also points out that many key staffers have fled Excelsior—something that industry insiders interpret as a sign of problematic management.

The divergent views are no surprise—if you trace the arc of Shire’s high-flying, groundbreaking career, it’s clear the partnership was doomed from the start. The union of Shire, the “Picasso” of Boston food, and Himmel, the no-nonsense mogul, “was not a marriage that was going to work,” says Ron Druker, president of the Druker Company and owner of the Heritage on the Garden, which once housed Biba and today is home to Excelsior. “Business people keep their eyes on the prize as opposed to chasing rainbows. Lydia, who loves colors, is much more interested in rainbows.”

Shire is indeed obsessed with color, a fact obvious from the moment you step into her home, a 19th-century farmhouse in Weston. From the street, the butter-yellow clapboard house is classic Greek Revival, but inside it’s all Lydia. The walls, some red, some gold, are curved; the staircase is curved; the banister supports are curved—and none in exactly the same way. In her study, the first room you see when you enter, red and green glass balloons hang from the ceiling. The turquoise dining room has a gold-leaf ceiling, an Italian burlwood table, and mismatched chairs, including one bearing images of Gauguin’s Tahitian women. “My mother taught me that black and white are the absence of color,” she tells me as we sit down at her shiny copper kitchen table. “There are tons of people out there who live in all-white apartments and wear all black. And that’s chic, but it’s not me.”

Shire might not be chic—but she does have style. She dyes her chef whites Pepto-Bismol pink. Her brassy auburn hair forms a feathery, back-blown halo. She has a wicked smile and a salty, sometimes warped sense of humor. (Her ideal last day on earth? To eat a well-prepared steak, then be thrown to the lobsters. “I’ve killed so many,” she says. “I need the lobsters to eat me.”) She is also, by nature, self-sufficient and rebellious. Born in 1948 to two Brookline illustrators, Shire was, as she tells it, a wild kid. She left home at 15. By 17 she was working at the Strand Theatre as a candy girl, where she fell in love with her boss, Tom Shire. She got pregnant, and they got married. By the time she was 21, the couple had three children, but their marriage was over. “Honest to God, I didn’t know what the word ‘alimony’ meant,” she says. “I just figured if someone didn’t want me, it was time to go out and get a job.”

She got one at Coltons, an old-school towel and linens shop. At night, Shire waited tables at legendary Boston jazz club Paul’s Mall. What she really wanted, though, was to cook. In the summer of 1971 she applied for a job at Maison Robert, which was opening at Old City Hall. “I made this layer cake with seven layers of coffee buttercream—real buttercream,” she says. “I brought the cake and they were very surprised. Not too many people come to a job interview with something like that. When I want something, I usually find a way to get it.”

Shire was hired as a “salad girl,” a.k.a. kitchen grunt. She hated the work—making salad, shucking oysters, and cutting pâté. She wanted a spot on the hot line with the boys. The only way to get there, she decided, was to go to cooking school. She hawked her diamond engagement ring for $1,000, left the kids with her husband’s parents, and registered at Le Cordon Bleu in London, moving into a YWCA where her rent was $9 a week.

At the Cordon Bleu, Shire learned the foundations of French cooking—how to make a stock, sear meat correctly, make puff pastry—techniques that were essential at Maison Robert. But when classes ended for the day, Shire took advantage of her freedom. On Mondays, after withdrawing the $50 in weekly spending money she allowed herself, she and a friend would head to famed jazz club Ronnie Scott’s. They’d dance until 5 in the morning and come home, penniless, to decadent breakfasts of eggs deep-fried in bacon fat.

Shire’s stint in London sparked her love affair with European cooking and traditional, arteries-be-damned ingredients—offal and meat cooked with plenty of butter, cream, and salt. And while in recent years many diners have become drawn to healthier fare, Shire has continued to let her own tastes guide her. Her whiskeyed calf’s liver with smoked bacon and the very British bubble and squeak (fried cabbage and potato), for example, is still on the menu at Locke-Ober. “Lydia’s style is like Beethoven’s Fifth,” says Daniele Baliani, who worked as chef de cuisine at Shire’s Pignoli in the late 1990s. “You instantly know those four notes no matter where you hear them.”

With a formal education to buttress her enormous ambition, Shire returned to Boston determined to make her mark. The first step: proving her mettle to the boys at Maison Robert. She joined the line, prepping elaborate appetizers, grilling meat, and producing vats of béarnaise sauce—an arduous task that required slowly beating 40 egg yolks over a low flame. “I remember the guys would look at me,” she says, “and I wouldn’t switch hands because I didn’t want to seem like a weakling.”

By 1973 Shire had earned a promotion to head chef of Maison Robert’s main dining room, and was on her way to becoming a big name. Between 1975 and 1982, she worked at Harvest, Copley Plaza Café, and the Parker House before moving to Seasons at the Bostonian Hotel to work as Jasper White’s executive sous-chef. “Lydia never slacked off, never took a shortcut. I had never seen a chef with so much passion and creativity,” says White, who went on to found Jasper’s and then his chain of Summer Shacks. Shire succeeded him within a year, and during her three-year reign helped establish New American cuisine, adding to it her fresh spins on traditional New England dishes.

For all her talent and determination, however, Shire was always better at giving than taking orders—especially if they came from someone who didn’t share her ideas on how to create good food. There were early rumblings, too, about her managerial style. According to Himmel’s court filing, Shire was fired in 1976 as the chef at Harvest (where Himmel was an investor) for not watching the bottom line. Shire denies the allegation, claiming that she quit due to irreconcilable differences with some of the cooks. And when Shire moved to Los Angeles in 1986 and became the first female chef at the Four Seasons Beverly Hills, she clashed with her boss there, general manager Charles Ferraro, over the proper way to serve hotel banquets, among other things. Management was also less than pleased that Shire’s menu showcased foods like braised sweetbreads and pigs’ trotters instead of boneless chicken breasts. So, she says, “I came back home, with a mission to let loose.”

Back in Boston, Shire spared no expense to create a restaurant unlike anything the city had ever seen. She raised $2 million, leased space in the Heritage on the Garden overlooking Boston Common, and hired Adam Tihany, the country’s most famous restaurant designer, to give Biba a sexy, modern look. Bold, primary-color kilim rugs covered the ceiling and the banquettes. The dishware was a jumble of fine china and knickknacks Shire had picked up during her travels, which spanned from China and Vietnam to Italy and Morocco. (“Lydia Shire is the only client I have ever wanted to sleep with!” Tihany told Shire’s friend and public relations consultant, Joanne Callahan. “Biba is what our love affair would be. It’s off-the-wall.”)

But the factor that would most differentiate Biba was the food—every dish reflected Shire’s unique, slightly kooky vision. There were menu items called “naughty duck” and “crackling frizzy salad.” Still, you didn’t have to be a gastronomic bungee jumper to eat there. Shire always had a knack for putting familiar flavors together to make something new. And though some of her experiments failed, when she got the balance right—her arepas of lobster and smoked haddock, her famous lobster pizza—the results were culinary gold. Biba, Boston magazine reviewer Paul Fischer wrote in 1989, made “almost every other restaurant in town seem pedestrian.”

Night after night for 12 years, Biba packed in the power and gourmet elite. (A-listers like Julia Child, John Kerry, and Arthur Winn dined upstairs in the restaurant; the chefs hung out late-night in the downstairs bar.) Shire paid back her investors in two years and 11 months—a feat that is still local legend—and became a star. Eric Bogardus, now chef at Vox Populi, read about Shire in a book called Becoming a Chef; the next week, he packed up his car and drove from southern Illinois to Boston just to work with her. He couldn’t afford an apartment for the first few months, so he lived part of that time out of his car—a small price for the opportunity to cook alongside the great Lydia.

Shire didn’t disappoint her apprentices; she was willing to go to extreme lengths to make her food shine. While searching for a great recipe for scallion pancakes, for example, she asked a Chinese friend to arrange for a lesson with the chef of a Chinatown hole in the wall. “So I arrived at 12 o’ clock. And this tiny old man unlocked the door and let me in,” Shire recalls. “Of course, he could speak no English, and I could speak no Chinese. And so he let me in and he started to look at me and then hug me. And then he started to move his hands down”—Shire motions to her breasts—“and I thought: ‘What do I want more, the scallion pancake recipe, or not to be touched?’”
Shire left with the recipe.

By the early ’90s, shire had become the doyenne of Boston’s now humming restaurant scene, expanding her reach with the opening of the more casual Pignoli just behind Biba in Park Square. But there were those who suggested that Shire’s cooking had gotten a little too popular for its own good. Complaints mounted about long waits for tables at Biba, and even longer waits once you were seated. Word was diners had to show up either very early or very late if they wanted proper attention.

According to several former colleagues, the sometimes maddening service stemmed less from customer volume than from Shire’s unyielding insistence on spontaneity and invention. Some dishes were just too complicated to serve to hundreds of people a night. A former chef at Pignoli remembers shuddering anytime someone ordered the freeform lasagna. “It took 22 steps to finish the plate: a drizzle of this, a slice of lobster, a sheet of lasagna, a slice of poached pear,” he says. “It was delicious. It just wasn’t practical.”

Menu changes—the day a new menu debuted—were notoriously chaotic. In many restaurants, new dishes are run as specials before they go on the menu permanently, giving cooks a chance to get the timing down and the waitstaff a chance to familiarize themselves with all the details. In Shire’s kitchens, the cooks would first see the plans—little doodles of what she wanted the plate to look like—just hours before diners began to arrive. “If it took an hour for the dish to be made, that was fine with Lydia,” adds another chef who worked with her for many years. “You have to please the customer. But she was the ‘artist,’ and she would do what pleased her and fuck the customer.”

Shire admits her approach may have caused some confusion. “I’m sure I’m guilty of it being crazy,” she says, especially when she was changing menus at two restaurants and she would be forced to “just blitz it.” “And because I put a lot of things on the plate, yeah, it could be chaotic. But the way I look at it, so we’ll have one rough night. Big deal. What kitchen isn’t chaotic sometimes?”

In the kitchen at Locke-Ober, the cooks are still working off Shire’s sketches, which get sheathed in plastic and plastered to an industrial-size refrigerator. On a recent Friday, Shire invited me to watch as she introduced a complex entrée of grilled lamb with eggplant caviar, homemade lamb tortellini, tempura eggplant, and spiced curry oil. She carefully plated each ingredient, cooing over the pairing of flavors and textures and insisting I taste each of the components, which were uniformly delicious. But when she handed the dish through to the ever vigilant chef de cuisine, he pointed out that she had forgotten something. “That’s why I have the pictures,” she said nonchalantly, drizzling a decorative swirl of the dark green curry oil onto the plate. “There. Isn’t that beautiful?”

Shire’s extravagant Locke-Ober menus still have their admirers: Moments after the near-miss with the curry oil, on a tour of the elaborate dining room, a graceful elderly woman approached Shire to tell her that she’d just eaten the best meal she’d ever had at the restaurant—and she and her husband had been coming for 51 years. These days, though, the real buzz tends to center on other restaurants. Thanks largely to Shire’s own efforts, she is no longer the only daring chef in town. At Craigie Street Bistrot, Tony Maws serves up cockscombs and pigs’ ears. Restaurant L’s Pino Maffeo clarifies beef fat in a molecular centrifuge.

And many of today’s rising stars are business savvy in ways that Shire has never been, parlaying their restaurant successes into lucrative personal brands. (Blue Ginger’s Ming Tsai has a TV show, three cookbooks, and his own line of Target cookware.) That kind of empire building doesn’t appear to interest Shire. What she enjoys now is what she’s always enjoyed: playing with flavors, textures—and expectations. If she makes great food, the business will take care of itself.

For 12 years that philosophy carried Biba. When revenues started to drop off at the restaurant after 9/11, Shire continued to stick with her characteristically over-the-top dishes—the kind that don’t deliver the margins of, say, a boneless chicken breast. This time it didn’t work. By 2002 Shire was unable to pay her $35,000-a-month rent, nor many of her purveyors. In a deposition filed in court, Shire admitted that she owed creditors “way over” $100,000.

Shire was in danger of losing her lease when Himmel stepped in. Her employment contract, first reported by the Boston Globe this fall, shows that Himmel offered her a $150,000 annual salary to be executive chef at the new restaurant Excelsior, along with 20 percent ownership, and $250,000 to help pay off Biba’s outstanding debts. Both parties entered into the partnership with great hopes: Shire was the name Himmel needed to launch Boston’s new “it” spot. And Himmel had the money Shire needed to work her wonders.

Within months, the goodwill had evaporated. Shire’s first menu at Excelsior featured Sauternes-poached lobster—not exactly what Himmel had in mind. He didn’t want the menu to resemble Biba’s, which he believed appealed mainly to foodies. He wanted more-accessible fare that would draw in a younger crowd, people who wouldn’t linger for hours discussing the best way to prepare gamecock.

At the end of the first six months of operation, according to Himmel’s official response to Shire’s complaint, Excelsior was on track to lose $400,000, eight times the amount they’d initially projected. Tim Lynch, then chief operating officer of the Excelsior venture, demanded cost analyses of every plate of food and final approval of menu items. When that didn’t work, Himmel considered diminishing Shire’s role in the kitchen. It was a plan, the filing states, that Shire “did not react favorably to.” Shortly after Shire’s three-year anniversary, Himmel fired her. A Shire spokesperson counters the filing is riddled with misrepresentations. But no matter how it’s spun, it wasn’t a happy ending for Shire. If she was, as she claims, pushed aside in favor of younger talent, there’s the implication that she’s over-the-hill; if you believe Himmel’s side of the story, she’s a money-squandering liability. Either way, the episode marks the most difficult challenge Shire has faced in her long and illustrious career.

One night, back in the heyday of Pignoli, Shire faced a situation that would have had other chefs hanging up their whites. As the story’s told by an industry insider, a guest had ordered a stuffed calamari, which was typically prepared by pinning the meat closed with a toothpick. But that night the kitchen had run out of its regular brand. In a pinch, a cook substituted a “wispier” toothpick that, regrettably, burned up when the food went on the grill—all except the part still inside the calamari. “Sure enough, an hour into service, all hell breaks loose,” the insider remembers. “Someone had swallowed it and choked, and they had to call an ambulance and take him out on a stretcher.”

The guest, forever after known to Shire’s crew as “the toothpick guy,” survived. Shire made it up to him by personally cooking for a party of his friends in the private dining room at Pignoli. The centerpieces, which she designed herself, were vegetables carved to look like porcupines. Each had dozens of toothpick quills on its back.

The incident was classic Lydia. Yes, lax supervision had left the kitchen using the wrong kind of toothpicks. Yes, a diner was rushed to the hospital. But—and here’s the mad genius part—she ended up with a satisfied customer.

The source who relayed the toothpick story to me wasn’t doing so in the spirit of celebration. He’s a critic of Shire’s—an anonymous critic. Whatever her flaws, Shire has developed a ruthlessly loyal cadre of supporters, and she’s not someone others in the business are eager to cross. As I was reporting this story, the Friends of Lydia expressed concern that I’d do “the right thing” in my coverage of Shire and, in particular, her battle with Himmel. None of them had any comment about her business acumen—only tales of Shire’s warmth, energy, boundless generosity, especially to local charities, and her unwillingness to conform to the conventions of the trade.

Even in the face of her ugly squabble with Himmel, Shire shows no sign of changing her ways. While we talk at her house, she reveals that she has a new project in the works—a restaurant in Maine, due to open next summer. It’ll be called Blue Sky on York Beach. “I’ll show you why,” she says, jumping up from the table and heading for the basement.

A few minutes later, Shire returns, triumphantly, with a large framed antique carnival poster. There’s a red and white carousel, grinning children, and people promenading beneath an electric-blue sky. This, in a way, is Shire’s business plan. The décor, the ambiance, and, of course, the food, will all be inspired by that image. “That blue sky,” she says. “It’s going to be that way.”